Opera House, Wellington

22/02/2020 - 23/02/2020

New Zealand Festival of the Arts 2020

Production Details

Created in turbulent and perplexing times, القدس Jerusalem is Lemi Ponifasio’s major new work. Inspired by the epic Concerto Al Quds by the great poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber), it will premiere here before touring internationally.

القدس Jerusalem is not a documentary about a city. Nor a political or religious commentary. It is a meditation on the universal tensions between idealism and reality, life and death, beauty and malice, freedom and control, love and hatred. It is the creation of a space to come together, seek recovery and new beginnings.

Expect impeccable artistry from the performers of the MAU company and exquisite, stark design. If defined in traditional terms, this could be opera, theatre and dance. But it’s better framed as ceremony: an intense, unforgettable evening for you to question, reflect and dream.

Concept / Design / Director: Lemi Ponifasio
Technical and Light Director: Helen Todd
Performers: MAU Wāhine
Management: Susana Lei’ataua

There is a pre-show talk with Lemi Ponifasio for this event on Sunday 23 February at 4pm in the Opera House foyer.

Jerusalem is commissioned by New Zealand Festival of the Arts, Toi Whakaari, Oper Köln and Akademie der Künste der Welt Köln.

Opera House, Wellington
Saturday 22 February, 8pm
Sunday 23 February, 5pm
Wheelchair accessible 

Duration: 1hr 30mins no interval 

Jerusalem Inside Us

لقدسلقدسا Jerusalememerges from a perplexing and tumultuous global context scarred by pervasive violence, systemic displacement, hate-crimes and the spectre of clashing assemblages of power, religion and ideology. لقدسا Al-Quds is the Palestinian name, in Arabic, for the city of Jerusalem, meaning ‘the Holiness’, or the ‘Holy One’.

Jerusalem invokes a fraught image of one of the most contested places in human history – an image perpetually held hostage in the shadow of competing divine archetypes, which police and divide human life on Earth.

In Jerusalem we are confronted with a contentious site of layered contradictions – a heterotopia embodied in the tense space containing both sacred ideal and profane reality, dissolving binaries, and in the unstable balance between death and life, exclusion and belonging, oppression and freedom, enmity and compassion, rivalry and coexistence, spilled and shared blood.

لقدسلقدسا Jerusalembegins in darkness with the chants of residents in a quarantined city, shouting into the night, “Wuhan jiayou 武汉加油!” – “Wuhan stay strong” – to each other from the windows of their barricaded highrises. Their cries of self-encouragement form a latent counterpoint to the fragments of traditional muqam folk music of the Uighurs – a Muslim ethnic minority people in China’s Xinjiang province, many of whom have also been ‘quarantined’ for re-education to ‘cure’ the ‘mental illness’ of Islam.

The work transforms traditional lament and prayer into ceremonial rites that open a space to question the order of things, and move together towards reparation, death and regeneration.

لقدسلقدسا Jerusalem is sung, chanted and spoken in Te Reo – braided together with the epic poem, Concerto al-Quds, by revered Syrian poet Adonis (born Ali Ahmad Sa’id Esber), whose controversial meetings with Israelis, well known secular stance, and use of the ‘pagan’ name Adonis, were met with expulsion from the Arabic Writers Union, a series of Salafi death threat Fatwas, and calls for his books to be burned.

Te Reo, the mother tongue of Aotearoa, once forbidden by the colonisers, is now the voicing of Jerusalem. Visions of Jerusalem appear again and again across times and places, throughout history, from enslaved Africans in the Americas, to British nationalists and Suffragettes; from the Whanganui river community with James K Baxter, to Ngāi Tūhoe Maungapōhatu with Rua Kēnana. Jerusalem is a site composed of contradictory fragments that form shape-shifting patterns entangling the real and the imagined – a space of despair and promise in which to bear witness to both the brutal wreckage and also the tenacious hopes that Al-Quds/Jerusalem has endured and inspired.

In لقدسلقدسا Jerusalem, we create a ceremony to search, traverse and trouble the unstable borders of the cosmological, the political, the mystical and the historical – offering a space for radical empathy in the ambiguities of necessary incompleteness, even as it draws the audience into the compelling search for the wholeness and holiness that animates the idea of Jerusalem.

– Lemi Ponifasio  

Concept / Direction / Design / Sound:  Lemi Ponifasio
Concerto Al-Quds:  Adonis (Ali Ahmad Sa’id Esber)
Light Helen Todd
Choreography:  Lemi Ponifasio and MAU Company

Rosie Te Rauawhea Belvie
Tame Iti
Kawiti Waetford
Ery Aryani
Terri Crawford
Anitopapa Kopua
Manarangi Mua
Rangipo Wallace Ihakara
Helmi Prasetyo

Additional sound
Alastair Fraser
Chris Ward
Excerpts from Uighur Twelve Muqam folk music performances broadcast on Xinjiang Radio and Television in China
Kiribati Otahuhu Choir Call to Prayer by Halim Rahmouni

Head of Stage Mike Skinner
Head of Sound Chris Ward
Technical Director Helen Todd
Producer Susana Lei’ataua 

Theatre , Physical , Performance installation , Multi-discipline , Dance-theatre ,

1hr 30mins (no interval)

Disparate elements come together in a plea for peace

Review by Lyne Pringle 24th Feb 2020

Mau is a company led by director/choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, a masterful stage designer and curator of eclectic taonga. With attentive eyes, ears and heart, he is a lightning rod for current events.  

For his work Jerusalem, Concerto Al-Quds by revered Syrian poet Adonis – aka Ali Ahmad Sa’id Esber is the inspiration. The turbulent city of Jerusalem is the metaphorical setting, bringing voice to the colonised and enslaved its intention.

As one of three curators for the New Zealand Festival in 2020 Ponifasio has been responsible for shaping the first week of the programme, opening the festival with Chosen and Beloved in collaboration with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. [More


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Many elements linger

Review by John Smythe 24th Feb 2020

Many elements linger

I first encountered Lemi Ponifasio’s work in July 2000, when he first brought Mau Dance Theatre to Wellington and graced the Opera House stage with Bone Flute Ivi Ivi, inspired by lines from Albert Wendt:
   Inside me the dead
   woven into my flesh
   like the music of bone flutes …

At the time Wendt described the Samoan-born Ponifasio as a modern taulaitu who mediates between the living and the dead. “[He] fishes out of the depth of our collective being a haunting primeval imagery and menagerie of creatures who confront us with their basic truth about body, bone and spirit, flesh, the Ao, the Po, silence that chants, fear and hope, and sight, all connected in the Va-Atoa, the Unity – that is – All. His creations struggle to be born, to live and find their apt shapes, movement and voices. And we recognise ourselves and our beginnings and our future in their indomitable, searching dance.”

Where Bone Flute Ivi Ivi brought clay-coated figures from darkness to light and arguably echoed creation myths of the birth of humankind, القدس Jerusalem finds us in a holy hell of our own making. The sung, chanted and spoken text, mostly in Te Reo, is (as the programme notes) “braided together with the epic poem, Concerto al-Quds, by revered Syrian poet Adonis (born Ali Ahmad Sa’id Esber). [His] controversial meetings with Israelis, well known secular stance, and use of the ‘pagan’ name Adonis, were met with expulsion from the Arabic Writers Union, a series of Salafi death threat Fatwas, and calls for his books to be burned.”

Israel’s city of Jerusalem, revered in scripture as gifted by God and central to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths, is better known in the modern world as “scarred by pervasive violence, systemic displacement, hate-crimes and the spectre of clashing assemblages of power, religion and ideology.” Here it stands and falls as a symbol of human conflict throughout the world and through man-measured time.

Thus the performance – variously described in publicity as a meditation and a ceremony – begins in a darkened auditorium with what the programme tells us is “the chants of residents in a quarantined city, shouting into the night, ‘Wuhan jiayou!’ – ‘Wuhan stay strong’ – to each other from the windows of their barricaded highrises.” This is not a prescient or suddenly topical reference to the Coronavirus outbreak; it depicts the plight of the Uighurs: “a Muslim ethnic minority people in China’s Xinjiang province, many of whom have also been ‘quarantined’ for re-education to ‘cure’ the ‘mental illness’ of Islam.”

It has to be noted that those who take the time to read Ponifaso’s nine-paragraph essay, ‘Jerusalem Inside Us’ [appended to the production page], will have more chance of finding meaning in the ceremonial action as it slowly unfolds. Likewise those fluent in Te Reo (which I am not) will have a richer experience; speakers of Uyghurs even more so. I assume the final song is in Samoan, although checking the credits and discovering it is probably sung by the Kiribati Otahuhu Choir, it may well have be Kiribati (aka Gilbertese) – and (I’m guessing here) it may have been related to their homeland’s impending demise as a result of climate change.

The karakia and waiata – beautifully and dynamically rendered by the Wāhine MAU ensemble, Rosie Te Rauawhea Belvie, Terri Crawford, Anitopapa Kopua, Manarangi Mua and Rangipo Ihakara-Wallace, and separately by opera singer Kawiti Waetford and veteran Tūhoe activist Tame Iti – are, of course, in Te Reo. And the two streams of poetic text by Adonis (Ali Ahmad Sa’id Esber), that are slowly revealed by AV projection on the black brick back wall of the Opera House stage, are in English. This in itself presents a comprehension challenge to those who want to understand everything absolutely within the present timeframe of live performance – as exemplified by this excerpt, printed in the programme:
  How do we apologise to roses our feet trampled
  roses lying around the city’s eyelashes?
  Blocked roads books oozing blood
  and in the mud screams the mouth of language could not explain
  Gentle and wild this city’s blood blood that pours
  into the cave of words no eye is wide enough to apprehend

The only ‘scenery’ in the bare space is a room-sized rectangular prism capturing the central stage area and the only lighting for the opening sequence, in Helen Todd’s exquisitely minimalist design, is an oblong orange light upstage centre, on the back wall. Our eyes slowly discern a human figure, one of the MAU Wāhine. She glides forward in a slo-mo variation of the wero (ritual challenge), sharply shifting her geometric arm positions while her left hand vibrates in wiri and her right hand wields … something: a feather …? a karaka twig …? Or is it – can it be a large shifting spanner? Yes. Make of that what we will.

And that, indeed, is the name of the game: to individually process all we see, hear and otherwise sense in relation to the theme as stated in the programme, according to our respective cultural frames of reference, our awareness of historical and current world affairs, and our personal lived experiences: the ‘Jerusalem Inside Us’. 

Given the contradictory nature of what Jerusalem stands for, I see the actions and vocalisations of the MAU Wāhine ensemble as representing its beauty, charm and resilience. The neatly suited and assault rifle-wielding Kawiti Waetford appears to be commenting on war rather than exemplifying it as a warrior. And Tame Iti, also in a grey suit, could be seen as reflecting the troubled history of Ngāi Tūhoe Maungapōhatu from Rua Kēnana to the 2007 Te Urewera raids by armed New Zealand Police.

The most actively dramatic sequence is played out by a long-standing collaborator of Lemi Ponifasio, Indonesian dance theatre artist Helmi Prasetyo (whose company Teater Ruang will contribute to Te Ata festival within this Festival).

Also grey-suited but with a bare chest beneath it, he slowly enters the stage from the auditorium holding a human skull. His face is projected large on the back wall as he slowly places the skull centre stage. Along either side of the rectangular prism the MAU Wāhine place small red flags, presumably representing those slain in war.  

When Prasetyo places a foot on the skull and dispassionately rocks it back and forth, as the shouts and chants of a large distant crowd are punctuated by warning sirens and gunfire, I deduce he represents either a numbed soullessness in the wake of some ruthless war (is there any other kind?) or the dictatorial political leadership that commanded such atrocities. He picks up the skull again, approaches the giant image of his face, reaches up to touch the corner of his mouth – and his image dissolves. It is here that the woman we first saw advances again. She is front-lit this time, the vocal tone of the women’s chant is more like a haka, her gestures are more confrontational – and yes, that is clearly a spanner she holds.

The stage empties and another woman – Ery Aryani – carries a large white bowl to centre stage and sets it down. Slowly she moves upstage, picks something up – and slowly draws impressively straight white chalk lines around the perimeter of the rectangular prism. The man represented by Prasetyo approaches the bowl, kneels, and slowly smears himself with a thick black substance, writhing in the process. I see this as his owning up to his guilt but my companion sees it as oil – oil pollution? Or maybe it’s the oil the war has been fought over. Aryani wields a live-feed camera on a long stick to treat us to huge projections of his agonised face – under media scrutiny, perhaps? And is it pain or ecstasy? His lifeless body is doused in a yellow powder … yet sometime later, towards the end, if we take this to be the same man, he is slowly flagellating his bare back with something soft. Now I deduce he has faked his supposed atonement. But that’s just me – others will have different and entirely valid interpretations.

The yellow and black barrier ribbon Aryani stretches across the front of the stage suggest a clean-up is in process. Tame Iti’s final oration features the phrase, “Āke, ake, ake!” – on and on, forevermore – but when Waetford returns, he no longer has a rifle. The rectangular prism has disappeared. A wide strip of pale fabric slowly, very slowly, descends from above and the MAU Wāhine slowly, very slowly, carry the end of it forward … as Waetford sings in a rich baritone …

The Kiribati Otahuhu Choir’s song at the finale is so strong and clear I could swear they are in the orchestra pit, but apparently not. Credit then to the sound design and execution, helmed by Ponifasio with Alistair Fraser and Chris Ward. (On the technical side, however, friends sitting up the back of the stalls report being constantly irritated by hearing the intercom cues from the stage manager to the operators behind them. Doubtless this will be rectified, having been reported, but given the price of those people’s tickets, they have every right to be cranky.) 

The adverb ‘slowly’ is deliberately peppered throughout this review. Slowness is a hallmark of MAU productions. At the turn of the millennium, this was seen by many as directly related to the Japanese dance form Butoh, but even then, the infusion of Pasifika culture rendered it unique. While the way it plays out in القدس Jerusalem is mesmerising, encouraging a trance-like state in which to absorb the experience at a relatively subconscious or subliminal level, for me, the unvaried evenness of the slow pace detracts from its dramatic value. Intriguingly, after the enthusiastic audience ovation is answered with slow and steady ritualistic bows, Ponifasio joins his cast and leads them in a lively, prancing curtain call. I can’t help but feel more varied pacing throughout would have brought more focus and meaning to the action.

A number of people did leave in during the show, from seats in the centre of the stalls, which is very intrusive in a theatre with only side aisles. (Had they been given sponsor’s comps, I wonder, so therefore had no ‘skin in the game’?) But if there were no walk-outs from a challenging headline show in the NZ Festival, some would accuse it of playing too safe. Many elements linger and will doubtless be recalled subliminally as I continue to witness man’s inhumanity to man.  


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